What matters is what he does with it
It may have taken him four years, but President Cyril Ramaphosa now has a firm grip on both Luthuli House and the Union Buildings.
If he started his ANC presidency in December 2017 as a leader whose hand had been weakened by the need to keep disparate factions inside the tent following an acrimonious conference that nearly led to a split, Ramaphosa looks set to conclude the term in absolute control.
On the government front, all the key ministries are now held either by politicians who have always supported him or those who were not overtly hostile to him and have now converted.
Even those government agencies that were perceived to be headed by individuals with loyalties to the state capture project have mostly been rid of the rogues.
The departure of Gen Khehla Sitole and his replacement by Gen Sehlahle Fannie Masemola as national police commissioner means that the president and his inner circle no longer have to constantly look over their shoulders out of fear that a Zuma man is in charge at police headquarters and may be up to no good.
Of course Sitole would consider it unfair to be branded a Zuma man. Though the former president did appoint him to the post, he was in no way his first choice.
Numerous reports that remain undisputed indicate that Msholozi had wanted to give the job to a person with neither police experience nor government expertise, but with firm ties to dubious characters who had become close to the president during the twilight of his stay at the Union Buildings.
Desperate to avoid the political crisis that would have been caused by such a controversial appointment, ANC leaders and government officials scrambled to find a candidate whose CV would be palatable to the public while, at the same time, not posing a threat to Baba’s interests.
They found Sitole.
Msholozi didn’t last long enough in office after Sitole’s appointment to tell if the national police commissioner would have been the president’s henchman or not.
But Sitole did get entangled in that convoluted story about attempts to buy a “grabber” that was to be used to spy on Ramaphosa and his backers at the Nasrec conference. His involvement in that drama meant he could not be trusted by the administration that took power in February 2018, after Nasrec.
Msholozi didn’t last long enough in office after Sitole’s appointment to tell if the national police commissioner would have been the president’s henchman or not
He spent much of the past four years either trying to prove his loyalty to his new bosses or fending off attempts to have him fired.
His situation was made worse by his terrible relationship with Bheki Cele, the former national commissioner who returned to the police portfolio in 2019 as national minister.
When police, along with other state security agencies, suffered an epic fail during the July riots, there were those who suspected that they were ineffective because the man at the helm had split loyalties. A claim, no doubt, Sitole rejects.
Now that Sitole has followed many of the untrusted out of the security services cluster, Ramaphosa can be said to be fully in charge of the criminal justice cluster.
What matters, however, is what he does with this control.
Does he follow the path of his predecessor and seek to use it in the game of consolidating power, at the expense of the country?
Or does he use it, along with the authority he now has by virtue of commanding unassailable support from his party’s key structures, to help set them free from political interference and manipulation, even when that is being done by politicians who profess to be loyal to him?
In choosing Masemola, Ramaphosa seems to be signalling that he wants a professional police service that does its work without fear or favour.
The new commissioner has been described by many who have worked with him over the past three decades as a career cop who “sticks to the blue line” and cares very little about the goings-on in palace politics.
That would be a great relief to ordinary citizens who, for years, have suffered under growing and violent crime while those in charge of the police service seemed too occupied with helping their favourite politicians win one conference or another.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and Masemola has the next few months leading to the governing party’s national conference to prove that he is about fighting crime and keeping citizens safe, and not about politics and politicians.
As for the president, now that he has cleared key state institutions of state capture loyalists, his role is to let those who have been duly appointed do their work without any interference. If he succeeds in doing so, he would leave behind a great legacy when he eventually retires.
—S’thembiso Msomi is the editor of Sunday Times